Zarah Leander and the Dream of a (Nazi) European Cinema

Benjamin G. Martin, Uppsala University

10 October 2017


In late 1942, Nazi Germany dominated Europe. And in cinemas, one German movie had begun its own victorious march across the continent: Die große Liebe (The Great Love, 1942), the single biggest box office hit of the Nazi film industry. But the star of the most successful film in the history of Europe’s most powerful regime was not German. The role was played by the Swedish actress and singer Zarah Leander. With her red hair, misty eyes, and sultry, deep singing voice, Leander had starred in several popular movies since being signed by Germany’s UFA studios in 1936. Carefully cultivated, aggressively promoted, and lavishly remunerated, Leander rose quickly to become Nazi cinema’s brightest star. Die große Liebe applied her singing and acting talents to a story set in the wartime present, striking a chord with Germans—some 27 million of whom saw the movie by mid-1944—and with audiences across Europe.

Leander’s success in Die große Liebe was more than just a hit for Berlin’s movie industry. As it drew audiences (and profits) from France to Finland, this film marked the culmination of a project that the Nazi film establishment, led by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, had pursued for nearly a decade. The goal was to make Germany the dominant film power on the European continent. The project’s central strategy was to restructure Europe’s fractured landscape of small, national cinemas into a unified, integrated pan-European film market. In this unified “Film Europe,” Germany’s centralized, state-controlled industry would seize the leading role hitherto played by the American studios. Berlin, rather than Hollywood, would produce the border-crossing blockbusters that would entertain European audiences—and cement Germany’s cultural hegemony in Europe. In Die große Liebe, Zarah Leander played a valuable role in bringing about the Nazi “New Order” in European cultural life.

Figure 1: Source: Film-Cine.com

Zarah Leander’s life and films, her melodramatic glamour and her distinctive husky voice, have stimulated a good deal of fan literature, as well as some excellent scholarly work. Particularly useful is Jana Bruns’s Nazi Cinema’s New Women (Cambridge, 2009), which carefully analyses each of her Nazi-era films in their German political and social context. But Leander’s story also embodies the European story of Nazi cinema. I explore that European story in my own recent book, in which Leander, unfortunately, makes only the briefest appearance. In fact, appreciating the continental scope of the Nazis’ film ambitions can help illuminate the role, function, and historical significance of the enigmatic star.

Talent scouts at Germany’s mighty UFA studios first heard of Leander—born Sara Stina Hedberg in 1907 in Karlstad, Sweden—when her performance in a 1936 Vienna musical revue attracted international attention. Undeterred by her modest screen experience, the Nazi regime’s film authorities spared no expense to convince her to come to Berlin. The head of the Reich Film Chamber travelled personally to Vienna to begin contract negotiations. The contract that emerged promised Leander the astonishing sum of 200,000 Reichsmarks for three movies to be made over the coming twelve months. (By comparison, the average annual income of a German working man was around 1,700 RM.) The Germans even agreed to the extraordinary demand that UFA pay most of this salary in Swedish kronor. With the ink barely dry on the contract, the Nazi star-making machine moved into high gear, placing images of Leander’s doe-eyed face on the cover of countless magazines before she had made a single film in Germany!

What can account for this extraordinary commitment of resources on an unknown, foreign actress? Consider the state of the German film industry at the time. Foreign anti-Nazi boycotts and a decline in exports caused by the depression choked the German film industry in 1936. Goebbels responded by essentially nationalizing German cinema, using a trust company to acquire controlling shares in the key studios and consolidating the industry into fewer and fewer hands. But Goebbels knew that domestic reforms alone could not solve the industry’s economic problems, nor appease his own political ambitions. Indeed, no European country could cover the skyrocketing production costs of high-quality movies on the basis on domestic box office receipts. Easy access to a large export market was essential. With this goal in mind, Goebbels’s Reich Film Chamber had already begun creating a new pan-European institution: the International Film Chamber (IFC). First proposed at a grand conference in Berlin in 1935, this body streamlined exchanges among Europe’s film industries so as to forge something like a single European market for film. Only this, it was believed, would enable Europe’s film industries to resist the pressures of the Hollywood studios. (Hollywood, unsurprisingly, scorned the IFC as an anti-American ploy.)

Figure 2: Goebbels speaking at the International Film Congress, Berlin, April 1935. Source: SZ-Photo/IBL-Bildbyrå

By the autumn of 1936, the pan-European work of the IFC was fully underway. It had attracted members from across Europe, opened an office in Berlin, and forged a deal with fascist Italy’s film leaders, who agreed to make the Venice Film Festival the IFC’s official showcase. On August 20, representatives of Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland had met in Venice to discuss plans for an office to coordinate international film distribution, a bank for coordinating currency exchanges, and an international court of arbitration. (Goebbels himself attended, where he met with his Italian counterpart Dino Alfieri to cement the Nazi-fascist “Axis.”) But none of this mattered if Germany did not have movies able to succeed in this integrated European market. And that meant European-quality stars.

This was the state of play in autumn 1936 when the Nazi film world got wind of Zarah Leander. From the first, her significance was determined by what she could do for the Nazi state-led film apparatus not primarily in Germany, but in the rest of Europe. Here was an actress with the potential not just to replace Marlene Dietrich—whose 1930 departure for Hollywood had been a lasting blow to the German industry—but to be a new Garbo. And, if the Germans could keep her from running off to Hollywood, she could be Germany’s European Garbo.

Figure 3: The German film magazine Film-Kurier helps launch Leander’s first UFA film, To New Shores (1937)

Leander’s star potential with non-German audiences was tested at the 1937 Venice Film Festival, where UFA presented her first German feature, To New Shores (Zu neuen Ufern, Detlef Sierck, 1937). Its reception proved that the massive investment in Leander had been worth it. Of the eight features Germany entered into competition, all were panned by critics and audiences, but one. “Only the film To New Shores was endorsed,” a Nazi official reported to Goebbels, “on account of the popularity of Zarah Leander” (quoted in Bruns, 120). That she was not German, Nazi officials recognised, was key to her appeal. It toned down any impression of the strident nationalism for which the Nazis were rightly known, making the regime’s cultural output seem less threatening. The appearance of the Swedish star in German productions likewise affirmed Berlin’s status as not merely Germany’s “Hollywood on the Spree River,” but as the film capital of Europe. Her role only grew over the following years, in particular after the huge success of the Leander vehicle Heimat (Carl Froelich, 1938).

Figure 4: Poster for Heimat (1939)

Goebbels’s European dreams were spurred to new heights by the outbreak of war in 1939. The German-dominated “New Order” in Europe that seemed promised by Hitler’s military victories must also, Goebbels believed, include a new cultural order. The International Film Chamber had fallen silent in 1939. But now the time had come to revive it. And in Berlin in July 1941, Goebbels personally received representatives of the governments and film industries of Belgium, Bohemia and Moravia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and Sweden. There they signed on to a new incarnation of International Film Chamber, reborn in the spirit of the New European Order. When the United States entered the war at the end of that year, the IFC acquired the power to ban Hollywood films from the continent. Meeting in hotels from Brussels to Budapest, IFC delegates helped enforce this ban. IFC leaders promised the carrot of access to a streamlined continental market and brandished the stick of cutting off supplies of celluloid film to non-compliant countries. Now Goebbels’s dream was becoming reality: “Film Europe,” internally integrated, externally closed, and German-dominated, was coming into being.

Figure 5: International Film Chamber delegates meet at Rome’s Cincittà studios, April 1942. Source: Istituto LUCE/Cinecittà.

And Goebbels also had the European-level star ready to seize this moment. Indeed, Zarah Leander’s European function was never more clearly on display than in her wartime blockbuster, Die große Liebe. Using the kind of standardized contracts, pan-European distribution agreements, and economic clearing arrangements hammered out by the IFC, the Germans pushed the film into markets across the continent.

Figure 6: Signal, a Nazi propaganda magazine with continent-wide distribution, promotes Die große Liebe, 1942, source: Stefan Bohman, “Difficult Person” ; Figure 7: Poster for the film’s French release, 1943, source: germanfilms.de; Figure 8: Poster for the film’s Italian release, source: zarahleander.de; Figure 9: Publicity material for the film’s Swedish release, 1943, source: Svenska filminstitutet.

The film tells the story of the romance between glamorous revue singer Hanna Holborn and Luftwaffe pilot Paul Wendtland, played by Viktor Staal. The story line is of a love frustrated by the duties of wartime, even as it is somehow heightened by the excitement of war. (Hanna and Paul’s first night together follows an air attack on Berlin.) But this German love story takes place against a backdrop that is self-consciously European in scope. The film opens in North Africa, ends in the Alps, and in between takes its viewers to Berlin, Paris, Rome, and even into the Soviet Union (alongside the invading German forces). It is as if Paul and Hanna’s drama, their conflict between love and duty, were too big for Germany alone. It spreads out in the Europe that now belonged to Hitler’s Reich. But—as the film’s demeaning portrayal of the Italians reveals—this was a Europe for Germany, a playground for German desire, a stage for German ambition.

Such were the real aims of Goebbels’s cinema empire, in front of and behind the camera. During WWII the continent’s film industries came as close as they ever have to achieving European unity, but in a form based on German domination, in the service of totalitarianism, racism, and war.


Benjamin G. Martin works at Uppsala University as researcher in the Department of History of Science and Ideas, with support from a grant from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. A graduate of the University of Chicago (A.B.) and Columbia University (PhD), he has been based in Sweden since 2010. His publications on film include The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture (Harvard University Press 2016) and articles on the International Film Chamber and on Sweden’s role in the IFC. This blog post grew out of introductory remarks he was invited to make at a screening of Die große Liebe at the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm, in April 2017.


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